Boston Office Space Construction is Underway Again
It’s been a tough several months for the entire world thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but some aspects of life are starting to return to normal in Boston. In particular, restrictions on construction work are over, so the familiar sounds of buildings going up can be heard all over the city once more. This means, of course, that work on office towers has been able to resume again; additionally, offices were permitted to reopen in the city at 50-percent capacity on June 1st. Still, it will be some time before things truly return to normal here or anywhere else.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first really ramped up back in March, government officials scrambled to figure out how to proceed. On March 16, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh issued a mandate ordering all construction projects to cease; at the time, roughly 21 million square feet of such work was underway. The order, which went into effect on March 23, halted all construction in the city except for critical infrastructure work and construction projects for healthcare and education. Many nearby municipalities followed suit, including Cambridge and Somerville.
Although Boston felt that a complete ban on construction was the way to go, officials at the state level felt differently. Governor Charlie Baker’s emergency order deemed construction as an “essential service,” which meant that all construction projects would be permitted to continue even in the midst of the pandemic. This conflict caused some confusion, to be certain, but the city decided to draft an official construction reopening plan to try to arrive at a compromise. The plan called for three phases of reopening construction. Not surprisingly, work on office buildings – especially for new construction – was not among the categories that were allowed to reopen in phases one and two.
Phase one of the COVID-19 Safety Policy for Construction plan was implemented in early May. At that time, Boston began allowing projects that were deemed essential by the commonwealth to recommence. However, the developers of those projects faced a series of requirements. In particular, they had to submit a safety plan to the city for approval, and they had to provide signed COVID-19 Safety Affidavits showing that they understood what they had to do to resume work. Before they could actually get back to work, developers had to prepare job sites with site-specific coronavirus safety measures.
Phase two of the plan commenced on May 18, when developers that were working on public schools, hospitals and one-to-three-unit residential buildings were given the green light to proceed. Road and utility projects were also given the go-ahead along with all open-air construction projects. However, this phase still did not permit for the recommencing of office tower construction projects. As with phase one, phase two also required developers to provide signed safety affidavits and to submit specific safety plans for approval. To reopen, handwashing stations must be installed at job sites. Employees must also be equipped with personal protective equipment, or PPE, including masks. Developers had to agree to check employees’ temperatures and to enforce social distancing.
Finally, on May 26, all remaining categories of construction jobs were permitted to start again. This is when work on office towers around the city was finally green-lighted, and there were plenty in the works back when everything was ordered to shut down. However, it appears that some projects have been adapted or even pared down in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, plans to include luxury condos at the under-construction Winthrop Center building have been nixed.
Since the first phase of the plan was implemented, more than 3,000 construction projects have been given the go-ahead by city officials. Many of these involved office towers, so it will be interesting to see how many new buildings are able to go up through the end of the year. Of course, that’s assuming that things don’t have to be shut down again. That possibility is quite real, and the city included verbiage in the plan stating that it reserved the right to change and adapt it as needed. With COVID-19 cases climbing again in many parts of the U.S., many projects in the city may again be forced to stop at some point.
The safety plans that developers have agreed to are being enforced by the Department of Public Works and the Inspectional Services Department. So far, there hasn’t been any word of any developers running afoul of the order. With everything only just reopening and restarting, however, there is no telling how developers will react as time goes by. Across all 22 of the city’s neighborhoods, construction jobs have been underway again for a few weeks. Many of these projects are office buildings that are being developed to address the acute lack of such space in the city – especially downtown.
Although work on office buildings has started again, chances are that many proposed projects will be put on the backburner for now. It is certain to be some time before Boston returns to the level of development that it was at prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, many businesses continue to be shuttered. Others are trying to adapt to a new way of doing things, which includes allowing more workers to work remotely. As a result, it is possible that some businesses that survive may choose to downsize, so demand for certain types of office space may drop.
Boston may not be out of the woods yet, but the city is as resilient as they come. Given its diverse economy, which spans industries like life sciences, biotech, medical, higher education, and financial services, Boston is better positioned than many metro areas around the country. There is likely to be a dip in demand for office space as the pandemic runs its course, but the city is equipped to cope with it. The nature of business may change in many ways as a result of the pandemic, but demand for office space in Boston will never be held back for long.